Union OKs pact with mental health provider

Behavioral Health Resources, employees union negotiated more than a year; health care key to contract

ahobbs@theolympian.comMay 19, 2014 

Social workers from Behavioral Health Resources picket outside the BHR Campus on Martin Way in Olympia on Friday, March 14, 2014, the first day of a weekend-long strike to protest overloaded working conditions they say negatively affects the quality of services they can provide. "Our clients deserve quality care," said adult case manager Janel Lewis of Elma, who currently has 91 clients. "When our caseloads are so high, the stress goes up for everyone and our services suffer."

TONY OVERMAN — Staff Photographer Buy Photo

Behavioral Health Resources and its employees union have agreed to a new labor contract more than a year after the original contract expired.

The union ratified the agreement on May 8, said Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199NW representative Julie Popper.

The contract represents a temporary fix for both sides, which had been deadlocked after several failed negotiations. Tensions reached a boiling point in March when the union — which represents 178 employees out of BHR’s total workforce of 293 — organized a weekend-long strike.

The union and mental health provider were at odds over health benefits and higher premiums. The union sought the right to bargain for a new health plan in 2015.

As for the new contract, BHR “basically gave us back what we had asked for,” said union bargaining team member Paul Gray. He said the extra health care burden for employees is more equitable. The contract also requires BHR to form committees that will search for cheaper health insurance policies and address low employee morale, he said.

Gray, who is an adult therapist at BHR’s Elma branch, said that bargaining will begin all over again by the end of the summer.

“The union has a staked interest in trying to keep BHR afloat,” Gray told The Olympian. “The story is far from over.”

BHR spokeswoman Alliea Phipps said she learned of the deal May 9.

“This is a big deal for us,” she said.

In an emailed statement, CEO John Masterson said the agreement signals a step forward for BHR’s financial recovery.

“I want to assure the community that BHR continues to strengthen its financial position and that BHR will continue to serve Grays Harbor, Mason and Thurston counties in the years ahead,” he said.

BHR serves 10,000 low-income clients annually in the three counties. The mental health provider has reported a cash shortfall of $2 million since December 2012, leaving some employees wondering whether BHR will survive through the end of 2014.

BHR is trying to avoid bankruptcy by increasing billable hours for clinicians, according to Phipps. BHR is reimbursed by a regional support network for billable hours, but about one-third of BHR’s clients are no-shows, and no-shows are not counted as billable hours.

This is an unresolved problem for employees who must meet a quota for billable hours, Gray said.

“They’re still threatening to fire people who don’t meet billable-hour standards for four consecutive months,” Gray said. “That’s sort of hanging over everybody’s head.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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